This year, World Water Day occurs on March 22, focusing our attention on one of earth’s most important resources: water. According to the United Nations, we’ll hit a global population of 8 billion by the year 2023. As our population continues to grow, our water resources are becoming increasingly stressed. The World Health Organization shared that 29% of the world’s population still do not have safe drinking water located on the premises and roughly 2.2 million people die from water-related illnesses each year. Unfortunately, there is a new cause of concern as it relates to our water.
Global plastic production has skyrocketed over recent decades as we’ve increased our reliance on plastics to allow us to live a life of convenience. Originally, plastics were introduced as a “cheap” alternative to other materials, such as fabrics, animal products (like bone or tortoise shells), metals, and other ores. They made many consumer goods less expensive, increasing accessibility for many products. Plastic production continued to increase as we moved into the convenience of disposable products: diapers, cups, straws, eating utensils, plates, to-go containers, bags, cleaning aids, and more. If you look around your house, you’ll probably find that many (if not most) of your items have some sort of plastic in them – food containers in your fridge, toothbrushes and other cosmetic products, most fabrics, carpets, electronics, office supplies, home decor and so much more. If it wasn’t made with plastic, there’s a good chance that it came packaged in plastic. But what does our use of plastics have to do with the safety of our water?
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development only about 14-18% of plastics are recycled globally each year. Even if you put it in the recycle, it doesn’t mean it ended up there: much of our recycling is being diverted to landfills due to contamination issues (mixed with things that cannot be recycled). Unlike glass or other materials, plastics cannot continually be recycled into new products. Each time it is recycled, the plastic particles are essentially downgraded, limiting its uses. Most of our plastics end up in landfills where they will never fully decompose. They break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These very small pieces of plastic are called microplastics. Some are so tiny, they cannot be seen by the naked eye. And herein lies the problem.
Plastics are a soup of chemicals, 98% of which have never been tested for safety. The
While much more research is needed, scientists are beginning to raise the alarm about the potential for microplastics to cause harm to our environment, wildlife, and even human health. Microplastics can be found in nearly all environments, but are especially prolific in water: oceans, lakes, rivers, and groundwater. Toxins leaching from these minute plastic bits have the potential to threaten an already stressed resource. Most of our water treatment facilities are not currently equipped to be filtering out tiny pieces of plastics. A preliminary study of bottled water found that 93% of bottled water contained microplastics. While more research is needed, the World Health Organization has indicated it is taking the concern seriously, announcing they will be reviewing the evidence and “establishing a research agenda to inform a more thorough risk assessment.”
In the meantime, scientists have also found that microplastics are accumulating in global food chains. Toxins from plastics that have been consumed by animals are stored in the body, especially in the fat and muscles – the parts we eat. They have been found in the smallest organisms (including plankton and mosquitoes) and bioaccumulate in animals, meaning each predator up the food chain has a higher level of toxins. Again, we need more research on this relatively new topic to more accurately assess the risks of ingesting microplastics in our diet.
So… Now What?
This topic is rather foreboding and can leave you feeling pretty down. BUT – we can make a difference with our actions! Single-use plastics (including disposables, packaging, and bags) account for 40-50% of plastic production. The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes. It’s crazy to think it took millions of years for some of our world’s resources, like oil, to form. We spend more resources extracting the oil from the earth and turning it into a product that we don’t truly need just so we can use it for 12 minutes, if that! So here’s what we need to do:
Will you be perfect right away? No. As someone who has been on the journey for YEARS, I can tell you – there is STILL an uncomfortable amount of plastic in my house today. Is it better than it was? ABSOLUTELY! And every bit helps. If everyone makes a few small changes, suddenly, together, we have a really big impact. Want to make a bigger impact?
For more Resources about Plastics and Toxic Chemicals, visit: